The cost of building a “superteam” in the NBA

Aug 10, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka (left), Russell Westbrook (center) and coach Frank Vogel pose at press conference at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers completed a trade at the draft that brought the NBA’s all-time triple-double leader, Russell Westbrook, on board. The LA native will join LeBron James and Anthony Davis in search of his first championship. With this trade, the Lakers roster going into the 2021-22 season completely differs from their 2017-18 team. That is quite some turnover for a three-year stretch.

This type of scenario has become more common in the NBA over the last few seasons. Both the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets rosters have met a similar fate as the aforementioned Lakers. Each team has overhauled their former cores in exchange for a roster more fitting to their newer stars. While these teams are better for it today, the gains haven’t come without significant, albeit circumstantial, losses.

There lies the focus of today’s article. Considering each of these situations and how they’ve changed in such a short time, this article outlines the cost of building an NBA superteam.

Talent over culture

Jan 31, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (L), Nets forward Kevin Durant (M) and Nets guard Kyrie Irving (R) look on from the bench against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, the issue of talent over culture isn’t all that costly. The base to this problem concerns a lack of connection to the fanbase at large. On a team entirely composed of recent acquisitions, the local followers are unfamiliar with them. This gets resolved relatively quickly with success, but there’s more to it than that.

The biggest fanbases across the NBA in the past decade include those of the Warriors, Spurs, and Raptors. A large part of that had to do with the fact that their championship cores came together over time. In that frame, players and fans became more closely knit together. Players that made up the majority of those cores were drafted and developed in the same place. Other players can come in and succeed, but they may not form a similar bond.

Golden State serves as a good example. Despite leading the franchise to consecutive titles in 2017 and 2018, the Warriors fanbase hadn’t embraced Kevin Durant to the same degree they did Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson. After trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors became a better team. However, the fans were bittersweet about it since the deal marked DeMar DeRozan’s departure.

The formation of an NBA superteam often disregards sentimental bonds between a fanbase and homegrown talent. What downplays the issue and sometimes resolves it all together boils down to winning championships. Extended time can make up for those short-term losses. However, especially when it comes to superteams, time isn’t always so generous.

A fast fall from grace

May 23, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Kevin Love (0) and forward LeBron James (23) talk during the second quarter of game five against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

When a “superteam” runs its course, things tend to fall apart fast. Look at LeBron James’ departures from Miami and Cleveland in 2014 and 2018 for example.

In 2014 the Heat capped off a dominant stretch through the Eastern Conference, making their fourth straight NBA finals. Unfortunately, the San Antonio Spurs halted their efforts for a third consecutive championship. LeBron later left the team in free agency that summer. Thereafter, Miami became an inconsistent playoff contender in the East, failing to make another Conference finals until 2020.

It gets worse in Cleveland’s case. The Cavaliers have not qualified for playoff contention since LeBron James’ departure in 2018. Despite a quick start to their rebuild with the drafting of Collin Sexton at the time, Cleveland has barely generated any progress since.

This development has somewhat played itself out in Golden State after Kevin Durant’s departure as well. With a majority of the cap invested in the team’s stars, the Warriors have little money to supplement their current roster with sufficient complementary players. With that, Golden State has to rely on unproven young talent and lower-tier veterans to assist the main core. Such issues have somewhat disabled their efforts to re-establish themselves.

An NBA superteam doesn’t get much credit

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12: Klay Thompson #11, Stephen Curry #30, Kevin Durant #35 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors pose for a team photo after winning the NBA Championship and defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 12, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The odd part about gaining success in this league is that there’s an apparent wrong and right way to do it. We heap an endless amount of praise on guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo for winning it all with their original teams. At the same time, we criticize LeBron James and Kevin Durant for leaving their teams to join other stars in more favorable situations.

It all seems unfair, and in many ways, it is. However, the difference lies in the respective approaches. The Milwaukee Bucks did everything they could to make the team around Giannis good enough to win. LeBron James and Kevin Durant seem to position themselves on teams that look too good to lose, hence the “superteam” label.

Fair or not, it portrays an image that puts these stars in a slightly dimmed light. It’s like winning a race in which you had received a head start. Though you’ve won, the credit would err towards the head start you received instead of how fast you may have run. You receive a reward regardless, but it won’t be as appreciated for what went into it.

In a basketball sense, some detractors will hesitate to credit LeBron James or Kevin Durant if the Lakers or Nets win it all this year. They’ll do this understanding that no other superstar has co-stars like Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis or James Harden and Kyrie Irving by their side.

Leave a Comment